Image via Christwire.
In an apparent effort to prove to the world that she still exists, Sarah Palin posted an inflammatory update to her inflammatory 2009 ‘death panels’ Facebook screed. She stands by her initial assessment, evidently, and still believes that if Obamacare isn’t struck down by the courts, we’ll live in a society “in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s death panel so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
The only thing more preposterous than that idea itself—which has been debunked, explained away, and mocked nonstop for three years now—is that Palin, and countless others, still presume it to be true.
That initial ugly falsehood — that the law legalized death panels — was catapulted into the public consciousness in the summer of 2009. It was partly responsible for derailing the health care debate altogether, and for sowing hatred for the mild reforms enacted by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The wacky idea, seeded years ago by New York lieutenant governor and Clinton health reform foe Betsy McCaughey, was picked up and made popular by Palin’s online post. Death panels were on the way, yelled droves of ridiculously ill-informed activists shepherded by exploitative conservative political operatives. Such was the frenzy that even prominent elected officials could safely claim that Obama was going to “pull the plug on grandma.”
We all know that story pretty well by now. But we should also recognize that it was all made possible by a media environment that was capable of confirming biases at a rate and ease rarely seen before.
“Death panels?!’ a Republican-aligned denizen with an ailing septuagenarian mother might exclaim. “Could that possibly be true?” Five minutes of Googling, a quick visit to the Daily Caller, and a segment on Hannity could confirm: It is!
Eli Pariser, the author of the Filter Bubble, discusses this phenomenon at length—for all the laudatory talk of the internet providing the world with a hitherto merely dreamed-of level of access to information, we’re increasingly use it to prove to ourselves what we already believe to be true. The extent of that phenomenon is a subject of great debate, but there’s little doubt that it’s occurring.
And that’s what we saw happen during the health care debate; horrendously misinformed citizens storming town hall meetings and going on about mythical bureaucratic death squads. These people weren’t necessarily dumb, they’d just had blatantly false information confirmed by a network of sources that they trusted. And shit, if I heard from four or five trustworthy sources that the government was about to form committees that convened to decide who got to live or die, I’d be up in arms too.
You can argue that anyone with a little critical thinking could determine that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Fox Nation are not trustworthy sources of information. But part of what’s alarming about the trends in modern information consumption is that there’s increasingly little incentive for us to obtain context outside our personalized media ecosystems. We’re rigging our own systems, and unwittingly creating our own frameworks to judge truth by.
The fact that Sarah Palin and her followers can still believe, three years later, that Obama wants to set up panels to prescribe euthanization to the sick and elderly, is evidence of how powerfully we do so.
All this is relevant today because the Supreme Court will deliver its ruling on Obamacare tomorrow, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the conservative wing of the court has fostered a more activist bent. (If you’ve doubt, check out Justice Scalia’s preposterous partisan ranting in the Arizona immigration law decision.) Its rulings are ever more influenced by the prevailing conservative zeitgeist—and right now, that zeitgeist is chock full of strident anti-Obamacare sentiment. Now, there are myriad reasons that conservatives have come to despise health care reform, the leading one simply being that it’s Obama’s signature achievement—opposition to which is a powerful political tool.
But the public face of that opposition, in many ways its original galvanizing force, was born from a handful of potent online untruths amplified by a broadening constellation of activist media outlets.